If Maurice Sendak hadn’t drawn the bakers three in his book, In the Night Kitchen, as Oliver Hardy-esque characters with bulbous noses and rotund bellies, I might not have missed his Holocaust reference in the Hitlerstaches they’re sporting. But I did.
Instead, I found out while reading an essay in The New York Times Book Review this weekend that said the “dream world Sendak concocted in ‘In the Night Kitchen’ (1970) was inspired by the Holocaust of all ghoulish things. Its cheery bakers wear Hitleresque mustaches and try to stuff a young boy named Mickey into an oven.”
Oh yeah, I missed the oven reference too.
Born in Brooklyn in 1928 to Polish Jewish immigrant parents, Sendak describes his American childhood as one very much shaped by the Holocaust. He also admits that much of his work is autobiographical.
Perhaps best known for his book, Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak was one of the first to tackle many long-held taboos of children’s literature, in this case, the dark side of kids’ emotions. Personally, I prefer Night Kitchen to Wild Things because it’s a sweeter book and when read aloud, is more playful and lyrical to the ear. Of course, I’m going to read it a bit differently now, but this new interpretation won’t change my love for the book. No way. No how.
In a recent phone interview with the Times, Sendak explained the origins of his penchant for the scary stuff: “The Holocaust demolished my family, my parents. I saw that, I was there, I was a child. I had to bear it even though I didn’t have any idea what it meant. What language was there to tell a child? None. That has stayed with me all my life. I was very much afraid when I was a child.”
But he’s quick to note, “All my books end safely. I needed the security in my soul of bringing these children back,” which he does in Wild Things, when Max finds his meal waiting for him.
“It means his mother loves him,” says Sendak. “The rough patches between them are solved.”
Similarly, in Night Kitchen, Mickey lands safe and sound in his own bed to which Sendak explains, “We want them to end up O.K., and they do end up O.K. Unlike grownup books.”
Sendak cites Alice in Wonderland as coming “as close to the world of childhood as great books do. It’s a terrifying book; it’s a nightmare . . . Carroll was allowing for nightmare, murderous impulses. I don’t know why he got away from it. He told the truth about childhood, about how unsafe it was.”
But this is my favorite part of the interview: “I have never had a letter from a child that said, ‘Go to hell,’” says Sendak. “They are always thanking me for opening the door, even if it was only peeking through to show how difficult life could be.”